What causes addiction? Ask most people this question and I imagine they will say 'drugs cause addiction'. This is the story we have been told for many years fuelled by numerous experiments undertaken in the first half of the 20th Century. In these experiments a rat is put in a cage with two water bottles. One contains just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Most of the rats drink until they overdose. Pretty conclusive, right?
As it turns out, no. Back in the 1970's Bruce Alexander, a Professor in Psychology from Canada decided to run the experiment again, but this time he didn't put the rat in the cage alone. Instead, he built what he called 'Rat Park'. This cage had coloured balls, the best rat-food, tunnels to scamper down and plenty of other rats to befriend.
The results of this follow up experiment were pretty stunning. This time round, the rats didn't get hooked on the drugged water. Instead they opted to spend their time engaging in 'Rat Park's' other activities. None of them died. This result led best-selling author Johann Hari to conclude that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. "If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe."
The implications of this conclusion for policy are significant. Firstly, it implies that our focus on making drugs harder to come by is a sideline at best (and one that we have consistently failed to deliver on no matter the level of investment). And, secondly, it suggests that if we are really going to get to grips with addiction we need to address its underlying causes, both those relating to the individual and to society as a whole.
For a long time the government's drugs policy has failed to recognise this, putting too much focus on the clinical and chemical elements of addiction and not enough on addressing the whole person, including issues around health (both mental and physical), housing, social isolation, identity and purpose.
Over the last few years this has slowly started to change (albeit, the government has maintained its defence of the war on drugs), and, last week, the government took another step forward when it published its latest Drugs Strategy. "We...(have) shifted our focus to recovery, recognising the wider support needed to achieve and sustain a life free from drugs and crime... We know recovery is only achievable...with action taken across a range of services, particularly housing, employment and mental health".
This is both welcome and exciting. At SCT, the drug and alcohol recovery charity I help run in East London, we have taken this approach to recovery for years. We know that it works. It's only by addressing the deep personal and societal roots of addition - by treating the person rather than the drug - that people will be able to achieve sustained recovery.
However, despite this shift in focus, there is a still a long way to go. In reality the strategy is built on rocky foundations. In particular, drug and alcohol services, which became the responsibility of local government in 2012 having been commissioned by the (still ring fenced) NHS, have experienced a sustained assault on their funding. Indeed, on average experts estimate that addiction services in England have seen cuts of 30 per cent, with more to come.
New analysis earlier this week by Sir Michael Marmot found that rising life expectancy - a more or less consistent trend for the last century - has halted since 2010, with austerity the culprit. Recovering addicts are a perfect example of this sorry tale. Since the cuts started we have seen a dramatic decline in outcomes across the UK. Britain is now Europe's capital of drug overdose deaths, with almost one in three drugs overdoses in Europe recorded here. Moreover, this number has grown significantly over the period.
All of this suggests that unless government puts their money where their mouth is, its shift in policy in terms of treatment will fail to deliver on the ground.
Harry Quilter-Pinner is Director of Strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in East London, and a Research Fellow at IPPR, the UK's progressive think tank. He writes here in a personal capacity. His tweets @harry_qp